Scots hoping for Nations League momentum boost ahead of the playoffs

AFTER a ten month wait, international football is back this week, and Scotland will be keen to build on recent results ahead of the rearranged Euro 2020 playoff Semi Final in a months time.

Little did we know when Scotland beat Kazakhstan back in November that would be the last international for quite some time. That 3-1 win at Hampden, which followed victories against San Marino and Cyprus, was meant to be the confidence booster ahead of that Semi Final against Israel in March, with a Final away to Serbia or Norway five days later that we hoped would send us to our first major finals in 22 years.

We also didn’t know that Coronavirus was about to come out of China a month later then spread like wildfire and cause disruption across the globe. Little over a week before the playoffs were scheduled, UEFA had to postpone the Finals until next year as football across the continent was postponed in the vast majority of countries.

For Steve Clarke, the pandemic added to a testing time for him as he was adjusting to life as an international manager having only taken the job last May. It would’ve been difficult enough for a guy used to being out on the training pitch on a day-to-day basis to only have players on a handful of international windows per year, let alone throwing in a pandemic where they only way he could keep involved was through Zoom meetings.

The wait is finally over and Clarke now has a busy schedule of seven games across the next three months, possibly eight if we make the playoff final, starting with a Nations League double header against Israel at Hampden on Friday and a trip to Czech Republic on Monday. To confuse matters, those games are for the 2020/21 Nations League, which double up as part of the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, but will mainly be seen as a warm up for the Nations League Playoff Semi Final, also against the Israeli’s, for the delayed Euro 2020, now being held in June 2021!

Clarke has some key men like Kieran Tierney, Scott McTominay, John McGinn and Scott McKenna, who were injured in March, back in his squad for this weekends double header. However, he is without a key element to Scotland’s chances of victory on Friday – the Tartan Army.

Restrictions caused by the pandemic mean that it’s still not deemed safe for fans to return to grounds, so Hampden will be empty for the match. There was hope that the game could be used as a test event for up to 700 fans, and it is thought that the Scottish Government were keen to grant the SFA permission. Unfortunately, UEFA have ruled that all internationals for the month, including Under 21 matches and the Women’s Euro 2021 qualifiers, will also be played behind closed doors.

Not having the Tartan Army behind them will definitely suit the Israeli’s and could hamper Scotland not having the home crowd behind them. But that’s not the only concern Steve Clarke has ahead of both this game and Monday’s trip to Olomouc.

Scotland are really sparse in options to play up front after the withdrawals of Lawrence Shankland through injury and Ollie McBurnie, whose absence is unexplained at the time of writing. With Leigh Griffiths, who was bang in form back in March, well and truly out of the Celtic picture with fitness issues, and Steven Naismith having only just returned to preseason training with Championship side Hearts, the options become more remote for an already problematic position.

It is now increasingly likely that Lyndon Dykes will lead the line on Friday at least for his first cap. Fresh from his £2m move from Livingston to QPR, Dykes was involved in a tug of war between the Scots and Australia, the land of his birth, before choosing the country where his parents were born for his International career. Having worked hard to persuade Dykes to commit to the Scots, it will be a surprise if Clarke doesn’t give the target man his first cap at some point over the next two games, and the exclusion of McBurnie in particular increases his chances. The other striker options are Callum Paterson, drafted into replace Shankland and McBurnie, and Ollie Burke, neither of whom are natural strikers, so it will be a surprise if Dykes isn’t handed the number nine jersey at Hampden on Friday.

The other big decision Clarke must make is how to get the returning Kieran Tierney into the team. Looking at the squad, it’s looking likely that Tierney will be deployed as a centre back with skipper Andy Robertson and Greg Taylor in the squad for left back and Liam Palmer and Stephen O’Donnell as right back options. Recently, Tierney has been deployed as the left centre back of a back three for an Arsenal side who won the FA Cup and there are calls for Clarke to deploy a similar formation for these two games.

However, the last time Scotland played with a three man defence, they lost 2-1 to Friday’s opponents away from home, and were lucky it was only 2-1. The team did not look comfortable in playing a formation they weren’t used to and it had a detrimental effect on Robertson’s game. He was used as a left wing back as opposed to left back where he often overlaps the left winger/midfielder, and going back to this formation may not get the best out of a player fresh from winning the Premier League with Liverpool.

Tierney’s lack of height raises questions as to whether he can play in a back four. For me, his reading of the game and his pace makes him able to play in that position alongside a taller partner, whether that’d be McKenna, Declan Gallacher or Liam Cooper. That would more likely get the best out of Robertson by letting him play his natural game as a left back, with Palmer showing in the last couple of games, albeit in the grand scheme of things were meaningless as automatic qualification for the Euros was over, that he is improving at this level.

The bigger question is who would partner Tierney? Out of the ten Euro 2020 qualifiers, six different partnerships were tested and not one of them looked convincing, with our only two clean sheets coming against San Marino. McKenna is favourite being the most capped out of the three natural centre back options, though Cooper is fresh from winning promotion with Leeds and Gallacher did his cause no harm in the November wins over Cyprus and Kazakhstan.

It could well end up that Clarke experiments across the two matches in terms of personnel and tactics as he searches for the right formula for the crucial Euro 2020 playoff Semi Final next month. With that game also being against Friday’s opponents, he’ll not want to give much away so that the Scots don’t get undone when it really matters in order to keep their qualification hopes alive. Victory in these matches would certainly give Scotland a timely boost ahead of that game, and also kick off the Nations League campaign in some style if we’re to give ourselves the same opportunity of a backup route to the 2022 World Cup.

But the immediate aim is the playoffs next month and keeping our hopes of qualifying for the delayed Euro 2020, and a guaranteed two games at Hampden, alive. This weekends Nations League fixtures are crucial to building confidence ahead of the second Israeli visit in a little over a month.

J Bleasdale

I am a football fan with a passion for writing, briefly studied journalism before other priorities got in the way. Enjoy blogging as its my way of expressing my thoughts on Scottish Football. Even though I'm an Aberdeen fan primarily, I'm happy to express my impartial views on other clubs.